Our Interview with Hellboy Creator Mike Mignola

Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics
Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics / Mike Mignola/Dark Horse Comics

In 1993, Mike Mignola stepped away from a successful career drawing comics for Marvel and DC to pursue his dream of creating his own comic book character. Twenty years, hundreds of comics, four novels, and two feature films later, Hellboy has spawned an entire world of characters and stories that endures today. (And that's despite the fact that Hellboy himself was killed off in a recent mini-series.) After a number of years writing for other artists, Mignola has returned to writing and drawing the posthumous adventures of Hellboy in the afterlife in a new ongoing series, Hellboy in Hell.

This month, to celebrate the 20th anniversary, Dark Horse Comics is releasing a new hardcover collection, Hellboy: The First 20 Years.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Mignola about the past 20 years of Hellboy and what the future holds.

The very first drawing of Hellboy

On creating Hellboy

Did you ever dream when you first created Hellboy that you’d still be telling stories with him 20 years later?

No. I’d been doing comics ten years at the time and I wanted just once at least to have done something that was made entirely out of the stuff that I wanted to draw. So I went into it creating something that, if it worked, I could continue doing it. I tried to make up what I thought would be my dream book but had no expectations that it would sell at all. I wasn’t really looking past the first 4 issues of the comic. I was fully prepared to go back and do another Batman comic or something like that so, yeah, I’m very pleasantly surprised to be here 20 years later.

It’s the kind of longevity that people really dream of trying to create with their characters. What is it about Hellboy, do you think, that has made him so popular all these years?

Well, the fast answer would probably be the movie. No, I mean, the movie helps as far as keeping him out there. I’d love to think I’d still be doing it if the movie hadn’t happened.

You did get him to the point where he was popular enough for a movie, I guess?

That’s not really the case, because, the comic never lost money but it was never one of the really successful comics. It was entirely the case of a director (Guillermo del Toro) who saw the comic, was a fan of the comic, and then was persuasive enough and patient enough that he eventually found a studio to let him make the movie. There was never a time when the studios were coming to me and saying, “Hey, we want to make a movie out of this successful comic.” It was never that at all.

But as far as the popularity of the comic, all I know is, I took everything that I love and stuck it in there. And I tried to write Hellboy as a regular person. Not as some superhero comic. And so maybe some of that comes through. I do think there’s a difference when you see a book where you can tell the creator’s doing something they really love or are really passionate about as opposed to an artist or a writer who is just doing a particular job or trying to sell a product or trying to cash in on a popular trend. With Hellboy, I guess there was nothing really like it at the time because I wasn’t looking at any other one comic and saying “I want to do my version of this.” I just wanted to make something that was created entirely out of all these different things that I liked.

Am I right that you modeled Hellboy’s personality—in some respects—after your father?

The personality is really much more me but some of the physical stuff is my father, so it’s a bizarre combination of my father’s physicality—I mean, my father missed WWII but he was a Korean War guy, a tough guy, one of those guys who would come home with blood all over himself from getting his hand stuck in a piece of machinery. He was so leathery. You knew he could strike one of those old fashioned matches off of his calloused hands. So, I knew I wanted Hellboy to feel like that but his personality—the way he addresses situations, the way he talks—is just the way I would talk. I had never written before so the only way I knew to write a character’s personality was to use my own personality.

On managing the Hellboy universe

You started Hellboy on your own but over the years it’s grown into kind of a comic enterprise insofar as you have other people working on other books, like B.P.R.D., that are part of the same universe. It’s like a guy that started a company in his garage and now finds himself running a large organization. Is it a lot of work managing all the various parts of the “Mignola-verse,” as they call it?

Yeah, I think it could have turned into that, I think at times it did feel like it was turning into that. There was a spooky period there—especially when I was involved in the second movie—where I wasn’t drawing the Hellboy comic. We brought Duncan Fegredo in to draw it. I was writing that book but a lot of the other stuff I wasn’t writing. Just kind of co-writing and managing a lot of stuff. And that felt like I could just keep sliding this way and I could just be a guy assigning jobs to other people and doing a minimal amount of writing myself. But I really missed being an artist.

Fortunately, once the dust settled on the movie, I was able to come back and take over drawing again. It never quite became just a guy managing a company because I missed being down in the trenches. Now, it’s interesting because, with the other books, I’m listed as “Co-writer,” but it’s pretty minimal. It’s long, comfortable conversations with Scott Allie, the editor who also writes Abe Sapien, and John Arcudi, who writes everything else, about the direction in which everything is headed, but not a lot of micro-managing on my part. And more and more, 80% or 90% of my focus is on Hellboy in Hell, my corner of this thing. I’ve kind of gotten back to where I was ten years ago where I wake up in the morning and I sit down and I’m writing and drawing my own comic. Yes, I have to write some other things and I help steer the other books, but I just feel like I’m the creator of my one little corner.

I guess that’s the benefit of bringing in good people.

Yeah, I mean it’s nice. If you get the right people then a lot of my job is not telling them what to do. My conversations with John and Scott is working on where things are going and trusting them to get to those places in the best way they know how. I respect and admire what they do so it’s been a very comfortable collaboration with those guys.

And the beauty with the Hellboy stuff is that it’s just been the three of us. Scott and I have been together almost since the very beginning and John and I for maybe 10 or 15 years now? So it’s just three of us that are doing all the writing and steering of these books and we haven’t had to bring in writers that are unfamiliar with this world. So we’re all on the same page.

On looking back at his own work

Tell me about the new Hellboy: The First 20 Years. How did you decide what to put in it?

That book was a nice surprise. We all thought it was going to be a nightmare to do because I genuinely do not like my own work. I’m super critical and the idea of filling a book with images that I would actually like seemed impossible, but I did have 20 years of stuff to pick through so it went kind of fast. I wanted a book that would show where Hellboy started and how it’s blown up into this whole world of its own. At the same time, it cruises through the first ten years really fast because a lot of that stuff was already in this Art of Hellboy book we did about ten years ago and because I really didn’t like most of my drawings from those years. So, with this one I was really able to focus on the last ten years where I’m really happy with a lot of that stuff.

Going through this book, it goes from that very first primitive drawing of Hellboy to all these images from the first couple of issues and, by the last part of the book, Hellboy only appears in, like, half the pages. Instead you get all this spooky, Victorian stuff—Abe Sapien, Lobster Johnson, all of that. It just shows that there’s this whole world—with a lot of range, I think—that just sprang out of this one character.

You said you don’t like looking at your old drawings, but do you ever re-read your old work, say the early Hellboy stories?

You know, I don’t know if I should admit that. Some of the stuff I do re-read because I’m still piecing together this puzzle I’ve been building for 20 years, so I do need to re-read in order to see how I previously said something or whether there’s room to interpret something I did in this other way. But, you know, some of the short stories I do re-read once in a while and quite a few of them I go, “Yeah, that still works. That holds up.” I mean, there’s certainly some that I don’t even want to look at, but, yeah I’m pretty happy with some of this stuff.

There’s also stuff I’ve done with other people, like Richard Corben and Duncan Fegredo. Those stories are just a pleasure to go back to and look at because of what they did with what I gave them.

On digital and creator-owned comics

Do you read digital comics? Do you spend much time thinking about how comics may be read differently on the screen?

I never, ever look at anything digitally, other than looking over the color for a new issue of Hellboy on the screen. I just never read anything that way. I think it makes sense and I think eventually that’s the way we’re going to be regularly getting our comics and if that’s the way it goes I can live with that.

There’s certainly technical things that I appreciate about it: The speed to which comics can be delivered. My guy can color my stuff and the next day, or even within a matter of hours, this thing can be out on the internet. That’s nice. Doesn’t kill any trees. That’s nice. Looking at the color on the screen, the color is going to be so much better. That’s great. So there’s really a lot of advantages.

Also, I design my stuff so that two pages work facing each other, which is the way you look at print comics. When you’re doing a regular comic, every two pages you can count on surprising the reader by putting something on top of the left hand page. So, the reader can turn the page and go “Oh, holy __! I didn’t see that coming!” But if you’re looking at one page at a time on screen, I guess you can do that with every page.

If that’s the way it’s going to go, that’s fine, as long as ultimately there’s a book version. I’m a book guy. I want to have a book that I can hold. I can do without the 32 page comic. If that goes away, fine. But I need to have that collection.

Another way comics have changed a lot in the last 20 years or so is that now it seems a little bit easier for someone to do what you did: step away from Marvel and DC and create your own character and then have people buy it. Do you think it is easier now?

It seemed like it was pretty easy even when I did it. Because the Image Comics guys had gone and done it and that made it so mainstream. I think what surprises me more often is really how few people actually do it. I think it’s such a practical business model… I shouldn’t say that because it certainly isn’t a proven commercial business model, but I do think it has so much potential for success. Certainly, if you can do something called “Hellboy” and it can be as successful as this thing has become, I would think more people would at least try.

If you’re coming out of mainstream comics and you have a following, I’m just amazed by how many of these people don’t step out from the safety net of Marvel and DC comics and at least try it. If you’re a super successful guy drawing Batman or whatever it is, if you take a year in-between re-upping your contract and try doing a creator-owned book, I can’t imagine, if it doesn’t work, you couldn’t go back and get another big company job at that point.

I have a lot of guys come to me saying “I’d really like to do what you’re doing but it doesn’t pay as well,” or it doesn’t do this or it doesn’t do that. It’s one thing if all you ever want to do is draw Batman. I can understand that. That’s cool. But it’s the guys that say “I want to do it, but, DC is paying me 5 bucks more a page.” Yeah, that’s great but you’re never going to know. You’re never going to know if your own thing could be successful.

Certainly, there are generations now doing comics that never considered going through what I went through, which was the conventional wisdom in those days: draw something in mainstream comics and then, if it works, eventually you can branch off into your own thing. There are so many people growing up in this industry now that it would never even occur to them to work through Marvel and DC. I think there are so many different outlets right now for doing this stuff. I think it’s exciting to see people have so many opportunities.

On the future of Hellboy

Where do you see yourself and Hellboy in another 20 years?

Well, I pretty much know where I’ll be. To some extent with Hellboy, I’m telling a finite story. It’s increasingly strange to think, “What am I doing with Hellboy if I’ve already killed him off? How do I end that story?” But certainly as far as what’s happening on planet Earth, we’re telling a very finite story. And, in 20 years that story should be done. So, I’m not sure where we’ll be by then. There are things that are meant to continue beyond that which I can’t really talk about. But, for me personally, I imagine I’ll still be drawing comics.

This Hell world that I’ve created in Hellboy really is this stage where I can see myself doing all my future work. The visuals of this world, aren’t that far off from the stuff I was doing with The Amazing Screw-On Head and other stories like that. I created this wonderful little fantasy world where I can do anything within it.

So, will I be telling Hellboy stories set there 20 years from now? Maybe. I kind of can’t wrap my brain around not doing Hellboy but at the same time I can see myself telling other stories that don’t have Hellboy in it but are set in that kind of world.

If someone was brand new to reading Hellboy where would you tell them to start?

I’ve said this to comic store guys: Instead of pushing the first Hellboy trade paperback—because we do have them numbered—I would give them one of the five short story collections that we’ve done because you get kind of a sampler and then you can go off and read the whole story if you want.

If you could do anything differently about the past 20 years, in regards to Hellboy and the universe you created, what would it be?

I really wouldn’t. I’ve thought about this question and a couple of other people have asked this question. I don’t know that I would. There are some decisions I’ve made about pairing the right artist with the right kind of story that I would have second-guessed, maybe. But in the big picture, in this whole world we’ve been building, I’m very happy that after 20 years it’s consistent and we haven’t ever hit a brick wall. We haven’t done anything where we went “Oh, now we’re at a dead end.” Everything still seems very fluid and very organic the way that it’s growing.

So, no, nothing springs to mind. I’m not kicking myself over any particular decision.